I came upon a short video conversation from a couple of years ago between Andrew Brown and Daniel Dennett. They are both atheists. But Dennett is a New Atheist and Brown is what I’ve always called an old atheist. This is what I am too. I’m just not interested in converting anyone. I don’t believe in God in the same way that I don’t believe in fairies. But I don’t especially care that other people do believe in fairies. Where religion becomes dangerous is where it becomes political. And as we know from the history of the anti-choice movement in this country, the religion isn’t really what’s important. It’s just a cultural signifier. The politics come first and the religion is used to justify those politics.
But I learned this New Atheist term for my kind of belief: “atheist but.” This is based upon people like me saying, “I’m an atheist, but I don’t care if other people believe in God.” In the conversation, Dennett is highly presumptuous. He claims that such atheists are saying that the “little people” need the fantasy of God and so should be allowed to have it. Brown counters that this is not his position. Among his Christian friends, everyone knows the arguments for and against God and there is no reason to argue about it.
Dennett then gets into a blatantly bigoted tangent about how good churches do harm by giving cover for the bad churches. Brown harmmers him on the issue by turning it around: does that mean that good atheists are worse than bad atheists because the good atheists give the bad atheists ideological cover? I think it is better to think about it in terms of race. Do African Americans who feed the poor do harm by making it seem like there aren’t African American murderers? What’s most offensive about Dennett’s statement is that he implicitly equates all religions: a Christian is a Muslim is a Jain. This is the kind of ignorant hubris that so defines the New Atheist movement.
Brown wrote an article about the conversation, I’m an Atheist but… I Won’t Try to Deconvert Anyone. And in it, he gets right to the heart of this issue of hubris. Even Richard Dawkins admits when it comes right down to it, he is an agnostic. He doesn’t know that God doesn’t exist. But he is as certain of it as he is of anything. I suspect that Dennett believes the same thing. So why the utter hostility toward religious people?
If atheists are against anyone, it should be those who wish to push their religious doctrine onto our secular society. There certainly are a lot of religious people who want to do just that. But my experience is that most religious people do not want to do this. My main interactions with religious people are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and they don’t even believe in voting. I’m really pleased about that! I fear the active aggression of the New Atheists are most likely to make the religious loons more active politically. I don’t think this is offset by more people admitting to their religious doubts — which is all that I think is happening with the growing number of “nones.”
But it isn’t just about organized religion. As I’ve discussed before, there are a lot of New Atheists who are like Tracie Harris. They think that the tepid thinking of New Age people act as some kind of a threat to society. But does it? Isn’t such intolerance toward anyone who isn’t an atheist just another form of tribalism? Whether someone believes in Allah or Yahweh or the Flying Spaghetti Monster doesn’t matter to me. I’m interested in more important matters.
Ultimately, I am a humanist. To me, that implies atheism. It also implies allowing others what I consider their minor delusions. But the interesting thing is that I know “spiritual” and even Christian people who are actually humanist. Most of the Sermon on the Mount is humanist. And I know atheists who are most clearly not humanists. If I’m going to get tribal, I’m going to do it with humanism, not atheism. Last weekend, Ted McLaughlin published some data on religion. And it showed that only 33% of Americans look to religion on issues of right and wrong. That’s in a nation that is roughly 75% Christian. Clearly there are a lot of “religious” Americans who aren’t very religious.
As a tribal identification, atheism is uninspiring. And it isn’t surprising that one of the biggest outgrowths of the New Atheist movement has been Islamophobia. Humanism leads us in a better direction.